Middle Ages, Dark Ages and pre-modern "straight" fantasy

Philip.Belben at powertech.co.uk Philip.Belben at powertech.co.uk
Fri Aug 11 08:22:23 EDT 2000

This really stems from things Melissa and Courtney and others were saying toward
the tail end of the Harry Potter thread, but I thought it would be easier to
start a new thread than to try and pull them together properly (sorry!)

Before I start babbling too, I'd just like to mention that I am _not_ an
historian, let alone a mediaevalist, having flunked history at school and given
it up as soon as I could (age 14).  I would add that I am fascinated by history
_now_ but was unable to relate to the way it was taught _then_.

To start with the "straight" fantasy - an alternative world, pre-modern, with
magic.  DWJ works a lot of elements of this into her multiverse books - SWM, DS
and most of the Chrestomanci books.  But Magicians of Caprona is straight
fantasy.  An alternative world.  Pre-modern - about 80 years behind ours, I
think, though this is not the same in all aspects of life.  And magical.

One thing I like about the Chrestomanci books is the way the fantasy world is so
close to ours technologically.  I have always disliked the convention that
fantasy worlds should be medieval, or at best Elizabethan, simply because it is
a convention for which I could see no fundamental reason.  Tanith Lee has done
some Victorian ones, such as Heroine of the Universe (or whatever it was
called), but I didn't much like that, and most of her fantasy seems to belong to
a more medieval sort of period.

I'd like to see some straight fantasy with a world technologically and
culturally at least as modern as ours.  Crown of Dalemark succeeds in part (but
most of it is still set at the Restoration).  Deep Secret succeeds better (but
she's not very clear about the Land Carriers - if they're really how Rupert
describes them, how does even _one_ manage to get into Wantchester without
flattening the place?)

But, returning to the Middle Ages, how very true those remarks about "perceived"
attitudes.  One of my favourite, if not my very favourite, non-fiction book is
"The Mediaeval Machine" by Jean Gimpel.  He describes the renaissance of the
eleventh century (yes, there was one!), and its effects on Mediaeval life.

The picture I get of the Middle Ages is an era where technological progress had
outstripped scientific progress.  New devices were being invented - Gimpel cites
the clock - and others were changing radically.  Knowledge, both "classical" and
from further afield, was pouring into Europe via Spain, which was a cultural
melting pot with strong Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities.  Loads of
Arabic texts on maths, engineering, etc., were being translated into Latin (to
inspire people like Fibonacci into adapting Arabic numerals for use in the

And all this at a time when universities, or their equivalents, were taking the
dark ages (what's the adjective from Dark Ages, anyway?) view of knowledge to be
kept secret and preserved from corruption.  So science and philosophy didn't
progress much - arguably they regressed, with Aristotle's views being taken on
so enthusiastically by the Church at that time! - while technology was leaping

I haven't seen much in the way of fantasy - straight or otherwise - that
reflects anything like this state of affairs.  People either take a 19th century
idealistic view of the glamorous Middle Ages, or (currently fashionable) a
wasn't-it-all-horrible view of the brutal Middle Ages.  Interestingly, Dalemark
gets closest, with practically the only centre for education being Gardale, but
technology progressing anyway (steam organs at Hannart, locomotives at wherever
it was up north that Mitt went, cap-and-ball guns at Holand).

(BTW, I don't believe Hobin invented the rifle.  Rifling as a technique was
known as far back as the 14th century in our world.  Hobin probably got the idea
from one of the transient population of foreign seamen which a port like Holand
would always contain.  I will grant that he could well have been the first to
manage to apply it to a hand weapon, though.  Hobin was at the right date to
have invented cap-and-ball firing, though I can't remember who invented it in
our world - someone obvious, I think, like Browning - and the multiple-barrelled
revolver is spot on.  I'm sure I saw one exactly like that in a museum once,
probably in Istanbul)

I could go on further about Gimpel's theory of cycles in technological progress,
but I think this is enough for one post...


PS Alternative world, without the magic.  Try "A Transatlantic Tunnel - Hurrah!"
by Harry Harrison...

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